Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Nationalism, Not Islam, Motivates Most Suicide Terrorists

Gary Olson

Here is today's discussion question: Suicide terrorism is primarily caused by Islamic fundamentalism. True or false? Although it seems counter-intuitive, especially given everything we read and hear in the mainstream media, the correct answer is ''false.''

In his recent book, ''DYING TO WIN: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,'' University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape has provided an indispensable public service by collecting data from all 315 suicide terrorist campaigns from 1980 to 2003, involving 462 individuals. His overall finding: The major objective of 95 percent of suicide attacks is to expel foreign military forces from territory that the terrorists perceive as their homeland. There is little connection with Islamic fundamentalism or any of the world religions. The taproot of suicide terrorism is nationalism and it's ''mainly a response to foreign occupation.'' The objective is political self-determination. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a secular, clearly anti-religious movement, have committed 76 of the 315 suicide attacks, the most of any group. Their specific goal was an independent homeland in Sri Lanka. Pape, who has also taught at the U.S. Air Force's Advanced Airpower Studies, convincingly demonstrates that ''suicide terrorist groups are neither primarily criminal groups dedicated to enriching their top leaders, nor religious cults isolated from the rest of their society. Rather, suicide terrorist organizations often command broad social support within the national communities from which they recruit, because they are seen as pursuing legitimate nationalist goals.'' Absent these goals, suicide terrorism rarely occurs.

Only 6 percent of the perpetrators have come from the five countries with the world's largest Islamic fundamentalist populations. (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Nigeria). He notes, ''Prior to America's invasion in March 2003, Iraq had never experienced a suicide bombing in its history.'' Further, Pape's demographic profiles of individual suicide terrorists reveals they are not uneducated, poor, mentally unstable, lacking in prospects, or young men expecting to spend paradise in the company of 72 virgins. Almost exactly the opposite is true. The data indicates they have higher incomes, intelligence and education, are deeply integrated into their communities, are highly politically conscious and from widely varied religious backgrounds. A significant minority are female.

Obviously, killing innocents is a morally repugnant act, but the evidence also strongly suggests that these individuals are motivated by a deep sense of duty and view their actions as a sacrifice for a nation's common good, its culture and community goals. Reprehensible, of course. But not caused by religious fervor. Although suicide attacks account for only 3 percent of terrorist incidents, they account for 48 percent of all fatalities. Clearly it's the most deadly manifestation of terrorism and there is every reason to suspect it will increase. It works.

Placing tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the Arabian Peninsula between 1990 and 2001 was the pivotal factor accounting for the Sept. 11 attacks. Pape concludes that given the high correlation between foreign military occupation and suicide terrorist movements, the continued and hated presence of American troops in the region will greatly facilitate terrorist organizers in recruiting fresh volunteers.

My own take is that here we get to the nub of the matter. U.S. military might is concentrated in this region for one reason: He who controls the world's energy resources, especially scarce oil resources, controls the world. He also becomes fabulously wealthy. Permanent military bases in Iraq are crucial to realizing their ends. How much easier, and necessary, for U.S. planners to deceive our citizens that Iraq and all the rest is about a ''war on terrorism'' related to Islamic fundementalism than to reveal the truth about their motives. They're well aware that an enlightened American public would refuse to give our nation's blessing, blood, and treasure to such a nefarious enterprise.

The so-called ''war on terror'' is fatally flawed because its planners are incapable of addressing the real political goals of those employing terrorism. They can't afford to do so. Precious little time remains to reverse a U.S. course of action that virtually guarantees a significant uptick in deadly attacks on Americans, both here and abroad.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is "Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain" (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Biden Drilling Report Blasted as 'Shocking Capitulation to the Needs of Corporate Polluters'

"Greenlighting more fossil fuel extraction, then pretending it's OK by nudging up royalty rates, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said one campaigner.

Jessica Corbett ·


UNESCO Members Adopt First Global AI Ethics Agreement 'To Benefit Humanity'

"We're at a critical juncture in history," said Ethics in Tech founder Vahid Razavi. "We need as humans to come together and decide what is the best course of action to take with these technologies before they surpass us in their abilities."

Brett Wilkins ·


Progressive US Lawmakers Mark Black Friday With Calls to Pass the PRO Act

"The right to organize, fight for better working conditions, and fair pay must always be protected."

Jessica Corbett ·


'We Are Fighting Back': Global Black Friday Strikes and Protests Seek to #MakeAmazonPay

"We are workers and activists divided by geography and our role in the global economy but united in our commitment to Make Amazon Pay fair wages, its taxes, and for its impact on the planet."

Kenny Stancil ·


'It Was Entirely Avoidable': Rich Countries Blamed as New Covid Variant Sparks Global Alarm

"Allowing new variants to emerge and spread, 13 months into the vaccine era, is a policy choice by the rich world."

Jake Johnson ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo